This was my first introduction to this beloved Australian story, one that generations of Aussie children grew up on, either through Colin Thiele’s book or the 1976 movie based on the book. It’s a uniquely Australian story because of its characters, its setting and its cultural landscape, but thematically and dramatically, it’s completely universal. It’s the kind of story that endures and can be retold without losing its relevance; it’s simply the kind of story that should be retold.
Barking Gecko and Sydney Theatre Company (STC) are bringing the story of Storm Boy to Perth and Sydney audiences in a co-production of Tom Holloway’s stage adaptation, directed by John Sheedy. Inside the cavernous stage area of the Heath Ledger sits a sculptural wooden wave designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell; it’s as beautiful as it is practical, alluding to the ocean, the dunes, a whale carcass, or the belly of a beached boat. It perfectly evokes the feeling of being at the seaside, even without a drop of water to be found on site. Scott-Mitchell has also designed the costumes and the puppets so that everything tangible has the same natural, rustic, textured look. Paired with lights designed by Damien Cooper, we get gorgeously striking stage pictures that are aesthetically harmonious and help propel the action and emotion without overpowering it.
The puppets, created by Annie Forbes, Tim Denton and STC Props, are delightful in action and handled with extreme grace and precision by everyone in the cast, but especially by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith. These two actors represent the link between humans and nature and as they crouch and glide around the set, up and down over the wooden wave, around the boat, underneath and behind the pelicans, they are simultaneously within and beyond the dramatic action. They are so unobtrusive, gentle, delicate and strong that their physical presence somehow becomes camouflaged, although they never disappear from our awareness, and indeed we could not do without them.
Two young actors carry the task of playing Storm Boy and on the night I attended, Joshua Challenor took the stage with Peter O’Brien as Hideaway Tom and Trevor Jamieson as Fingerbone Bill. They formed an unlikely family or brotherhood, each in different stages of reckoning with the past. Jamieson is so warm, jovial and kind as Fingerbone; he is the healing salve that Storm Boy and Hideaway Tom never knew they needed. He both grounds and uplifts them by providing sage advice, poignant reminders about nature and life, and plenty of silly jokes to lighten the mood. He had young and old giggling in their seats, proving that a good (or bad) pun knows no age limit.
At first we think Peter O’Brien as Hideaway Tom might be too gruff and tough on Storm Boy, but it’s not long before he reveals his tender spots and we know how fiercely protective and loving he is of his boy. O’Brien shifts constantly between tough and tender and in so doing creates a dynamic character that could swing the action depending on his mood. He and Jamieson also do a fantastic job of creating space for the young Joshua Challenor to reach his potential as a lead actor. Challenor rose to the occasion with aplomb and plenty of spark.
Sometimes the sound levels were a bit overpowering and the storm scene went on for perhaps a sequence or two long, as by the end of it most of the audience around me were shielding their eyes from the strobe lights. However it wasn’t long before they were drying tears from those same eyes as Storm Boy reached its most bittersweet climax. It’s amazing how puppets can become imbued with life when they are in the hands of experts and we suspend our disbelief; amazing still is how we can feel sadness when they “live” no more.